At the beginning of this school year (2018-2019), one of my students quickly stood out from all the rest. She has green highlights in her hair, a cool last name (which I will not divulge), and a “bubbly” personality. I’ll call her “Gina”. We are now 2 months into school, and one thing I’ve noticed about Gina is that she has been much less noticeable. She still sports her green highlights, but she just isn’t as bubbly as before. It’s been several weeks since she started to fade into the background. So, a few days ago, I was greeting my students as they entered class, and when she walked in, I followed her to her seat and quietly asked if everything was okay. She said all was fine. I didn’t believe her, so I pressed a little more and asked, “Are you sure?” I continued, “You’re a lot quieter than before. Is there something bothering you, but you don’t want to talk about it?” She sighed and replied,”Whenever something is bothering me I don’t like to show it.” I responded, “But I can see it. Let me know if you need something or if you want to talk, okay?” She smiled weakly and nodded. I’ll be keeping my eye on her for a while.
During the first month of the 2017-2018 school year, one my 8th graders, whom I’ll refer to as Marlene, seemed like a perfectly sweet, hard working kid with her glasses and shoulder length brown hair. She had excellent grades from the year before and no record of misbehavior. About a month into the school year, Marlene got… weird. She started acting as if she could do whatever she wanted and there was nothing anybody could do about it. She would get up and walk around and talk to whomever she wanted whenever she felt like it. I called a meeting with her mom to get to the bottom of things. Marlene’s mom told me about how she could not trust her daughter anymore because she saw romantic text messages between her daughter and an older high school boy on Marlene’s cell phone. She also said that her daughter had been having a bad attitude ever since then. Marlene was clearly very upset as her mom told me all this. As the meeting went on, Marlene seemed to get more and more agitated. I could tell that speaking with her mother was just making things worse, so I wrapped it up by telling Marlene that whenever she was upset, she should just let me know immediately and then I could provide her with certain accommodations, like letting her speak to the counselor, giving her a pass to go the the bathroom where she could take her time to collect herself, or just simply leaving her alone. The very next day, Marlene asked if she could talk with me privately during lunch, and I agreed. When the time came, she said that she usually shows her teachers nothing but the utmost respect, and that she was extremely sorry for how she was acting before. She further stated that she was upset all the time because she felt her mother constantly suspected she was up to no good. She would later take me up on ALL the accommodations I had offered earlier on multiple occasions. The trips to the counselor taught her several coping strategies, such as drawing, which she did frequently. Marlene got through the school year with good grades and her behavior was wonderful.
By the second month of the 2015-2016 school year, Jesus was really confusing me. This skinny, spiked-hair kid had good days and bad days. One instant, he might be very well behaved and focused. The next minute, he was defiant and rude. The change would happen so suddenly. I didn’t know where it came from, but I suspected he was holding in a lot of anger. One day, I observed Jesus on what I thought was a good day. He was hyper focused on doing his work. When I looked closer, I realized he wasn’t doing my science work. He was actually working on a social studies assignment. He was working so hard that I decided to let it go and allow him to continue with the history assignment. Later on during that same class period, I asked all my students to clear their desks so they could watch a quick video clip. While the video was running, I noticed Jesus was still doing his social studies assignment. I went up to him and quietly asked him to put it away so that he could pay attention to the video, and then he could continue with it after the video was over. He said nothing and continued working. I asked him if he heard me. He ignored me and kept on chugging along with the history assignment. I ain’t gonna lie, the silent defiance treatment I was getting from him was really getting on my nerves. With a bit more force in my voice, I repeated my request that he put his work away so he could concentrate on the video. Jesus then blurted out, “My brother’s coming home and I gotta get all my work done!” Something told me it was really important to him, so I took a deep breath, swallowed the anger building up in me, and told him, “Okay. Do what you gotta do.” A week or two later, the school counselor arranged a meeting between Jesus’ mom and all his teachers because apparently, he had been giving all his instructors attitude. In the meeting, I told him that I felt he was angry at something. He denied it, but his mom chimed in and said that her son might be upset about his brother coming home. Jesus’ brother was in the army. The soldier had high expectations for his younger siblings. There was no mention of Jesus’ father in either his cumulative folder or in the meeting, so I assumed the older brother acted as the father figure for the family. Jesus’ mom said that his brother was hard on his siblings and that may be where his anger was coming from. Stress from having to be a good student for his brother seemed to be weighing heavily on Jesus. So, I told him I would accommodate him as best I could. If he needed to get work done for other classes during my science period, I would allow him to do it as long as he didn’t fall behind in my class. Also, if he ever started to feel agitated, he could tell me and I would give him the same accommodations I gave to Marlene above. Afterwards, as the months passed, Jesus behavior improved greatly, but there were still moments when he tried my patience. On one such occasion, I pulled him aside and asked him, “How much trouble have you gotten in with me in the last few months? Hardly any, right? You should know by now that I’ll leave you alone as long as you behave and do your work. So, you don’t need to give me attitude. I want you to do well and I don’t want you to get in trouble with your brother. So, come on. Stop it with the attitude because I’m on your side.” He nodded and we were cool with each other for the rest of the school year. The next year, as an 8th grader, Jesus got another teacher for science. Despite not being his teacher anymore, he would call my name from across campus whenever he saw me and wave when he had my attention. He would stop by my class on occasion too just to catch up. He NEVER did any of that the year before when he was actually my student. It would have been nice to get this kind of treatment when he was still in my class, but I guess better late than never.
A tall, skinny, long brown- haired 7th grader named Jane didn’t arrive in my class until February or March of 2015. Right away, I could tell Jane was not a happy camper. I struck up a conversation one time and learned she didn’t enjoy having to move to a new school and that there were some family problems, but she didn’t go into details. I then arranged the seating chart so she could be with two very nice outgoing girls and it seemed to work. All three kids got along well. I often saw them talking to each other and laughing together. Despite this, Jane was absent frequently. By May, she was absent at least once a week. On a day she was present, I asked her if everything was okay. She said she hated life, but once again, she didn’t go into details. I thought telling her about my own difficult childhood would show her she wasn’t alone, so I gave her an abridged version of my upbringing. It really did seem to help. She perked up in the next couple of weeks. However, she then disappeared. After the first week of her absence, I called home. No one picked up, so I left a message saying that I hoped she was well and that her presence was missed by all in my class. She eventually returned after almost two weeks. I made a big deal to her about how everyone was so happy she was back. She said she just didn’t feel like going to school and her family just let her stay home.
A few days later, Jane arrived to my class and was acting really strange. She kept putting her head down on her table and I assumed she was just tired. When I went up to her and inquired if everything was all right, she said without hesitation, “I took a bunch of pills this morning and tried to kill myself.” I immediately called for help. Campus security officers quickly arrived right in time to catch Jane as she passed out, then an ambulance came to take her to the hospital shortly after that. She made it and eventually came back to school the next year. She got through the 8th grade and went on to high school without incident.
I was able to spot all these kids and a whole lot more because I was observant. If you’re not sure how to start developing good relationships with students then start with being observant. Pay attention to the little details about students’ appearance, body language, personality, and facial expressions. Most importantly, pay attention to the changes in those details. Almost all kids who misbehave do so because they have a need that is not being fulfilled. Once you find out what that need is through your observations, try to fulfill that need if you can. I observed Gina change from an energetic kid to a melancholy one, so I made sure she knew I was there for her when she’s ready to open up. I observed Marlene change from a well behaved kid to a very troublesome one, so I made accommodations for her and she found a way to get through the difficult time she was going through with her mother. I observed that Jesus was an angry, yet hard working kid, so I gave him a way to help him do his work to abate his anger. I observed Jane’s dissatisfaction over her life circumstances, so I teamed her up with good kids who befriended her and called home to let her know how valued she was. I think that is why she told me of what she had done instead of anyone else that day. I think she realized I cared enough to listen and try to help her.
Each one of the above kids had needs. I found out what they were and tried to provide them by observing the kids, but I’m just one teacher. I can’t see them all. Not all of them like me. Some of them try so hard to hide what is wrong that they’ve actually resented me for seeing through their disguise. There’s no way I can save every one of them. I need YOUR help. We need to work together. We all need to be observant so you or another teacher can spot the ones I miss or just can’t help. I can sleep at night knowing I’ve helped so many, but I lose sleep on occasion thinking about all the ones who slip by me unnoticed. I hope it’s a small number, and I hope you’re the one that’s there for these kids when I can’t be. Let’s show every kid that someone sees them.